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child care industry
Child care centers, like this one near Austin, Texas, have struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

It is well known by now that the pandemic has decimated the child care industry: at the end of last year, there were 166,800 fewer child care workers than the previous December. More than 80 percent of child care centers that are still open enroll fewer children than before the pandemic. And experts have estimated that up to 40 percent of centers could close permanently. Among preschool classrooms alone, the percentage of 3 and 4-year-olds attending dropped by nearly 25 percent, according to a recent survey from the National Institute for Early Education Research. Young children in poverty have been hardest hit, with severely reduced access to in-person preschool during the pandemic.

Experts say part of the problem is that the early learning structures that were in place before Covid-19 hit were already in trouble, with many child care centers balancing on a financial cliff while parents also struggled to afford care.

“Covid just showed how flimsy all of our systems are,” said Shantel Meek, founding director of the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University. “It kind of laid bare and worsened the inequities, and that includes for early childhood education.”

Child care advocates, however, have been heartened recently that President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives late last month, includes $24 billion in an emergency stabilization fund that would support child care providers with rent, payroll and pandemic-related costs to keep classrooms open and safe. The plan also includes $15 billion in additional funds toward the federally-funded Child Care and Development Block Grant Program, which is administered through states in the form of child care assistance for families. In addition, recent proposals from lawmakers have included increases to the Child Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which are meant to support families with children.

As early learning receives more federal attention — and possible funds — experts recommend the following steps to make a high-quality, equitable and more accessible system:

  1. Include independent settings, like family child care, in immediate and long-term funding plans and increases: Lawmakers first must provide emergency funds to centers to keep them afloat, and then must address the roots of the child care crisis, such as by reintroducing the Child Care for Working Families Act, which among other things would help families pay for child care, said Laura Dallas McSorley, director of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress. And these plans to support the industry should include multiple settings for child care and preschool, including family child care centers, McSorley added. “All of these are educational settings families have chosen. All of these have educators serving children.” A recent report by the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University’s Center for Child and Family Success also argues for the inclusion of family child care providers and home-based settings as critical toward developing an equitable system. These settings, the report states, “have historically had less access to systemic resources.”
  • Improve compensation to early childhood educators: Poor working conditions, a lack of benefits and low pay have all contributed to economic insecurity and high turnover rates among early educators. A new report by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) found that early educators, especially women of color and those who work with infants and toddlers, “are in economic distress.” Median child care worker wages do not add up to a living wage for a single adult with one child in any state, according to data in the report from 2019. Poverty rates for early educators range from about 11 percent in Vermont to more than 34 percent in Washington D.C., far higher than poverty rates for K-8 teachers. “We can fix this,” said Caitlin McLean, a senior research specialist at CSCCE on a webinar about the report. “Covid-19 has shown how critical this workforce is to the economy. When child care workers aren’t available, grocery store workers, nurses, shop owners, none of them can work.” Officials at CSCCE say more public funding is needed to give early educators in all child care settings a living wage, healthcare and a safe working environment.
  • Support and expand federally-funded Head Start programs: The federally-funded Head Start program already supports families with more than just childcare. Its mental health services and trainings for parents are exactly what many families need, especially now in the midst of the pandemic, said Shantel Meek from the Children’s Equity Project. “I feel like Head Start has been overlooked a little bit,” Meek said. McSorley from the Center for American Progress agrees that Head Start can serve as a model for a new early ed system. It should be “scaled as a stand-alone investment to reach more eligible students and families across the country,” she wrote in her report.
  • Consider financial relief and support for families to ease costs related to child care and raising children: To expand eligibility and help more families get child care tuition assistance, the First Five Years Fund recently recommended that lawmakers consider revising income restrictions and raising reimbursement rates for child care centers, which are currently far below the cost to provide care in most states. And while tax credits may not directly provide relief needed by child care centers and preschool classrooms, some advocates say expanding and making tax credits refundable will help parents afford quality early learning programs.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

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